May 3, 2007
Scarred for LifeBy Christopher Chantrill
Alec Baldwin's 11-year-old daughter may be scarred for life by his much publicized telephone rage, many commentators agree. At least he has apologized. But perhaps Baldwin is the one who will be scarred for life-from his divorce from actress Kim Basinger. After all who are more easily scarred: Pampered celebrities or pampered celebrity children?
One thing is for sure. Many people in our modern world believe that children and teenagers are more than usually fragile. Presumably that's why we protect and control them with a forest of laws and custodial measures like compulsory education.
Back in 1800, observes Richard Epstein in The Case Against Adolescence, there were almost no laws directed at children. But starting in 1850 we started to write laws to restrict the behavior of children under eighteen, about one law every two years.
Since 1960 the lid has blown off. In the past half century over 100 laws have been written in the United States to restrict the behavior or the rights of teenagers.
It's become so bad that a recent poll found that adults in the United States now think that adulthood begins at the age of twenty-six. According to Epstein, studies show that young people are not as helpless as the law presumes. They capable thinkers, tough and resilient, creative, and even capable of adult love. Young people want to grow up but, more and more, society tells them to wait.
There was a time, Epstein observes, when we judged blacks and women as helpless children, inferior beings unable to make informed decisions about their lives. The civil rights revolution put a stop to that.
Ten years ago the nation pulled off another rights revolution. We told welfare mothers that we would help them with cash assistance only for a limited time. It was their responsibility to use that time to become independent. The result was unequivocal. Welfare mothers went out and got jobs.
Conservatives believe in responsibility. We think that people should be responsible for their own lives and we believe that the modern welfare state and its presumption of helplessness is harmful to humans and other living things.
But what about teenagers? Should they be allowed to work? Should they be allowed to own businesses? Should they be allowed to have sex? What about abortions without parental consent?
Today, Epstein asserts, the only way we allow teenagers to assert their adultness is by getting drunk, getting pregnant, or committing a crime. Teenagers are so disadvantaged by the law that they have fewer rights than soldiers and convicts.
Epstein wants to reverse the infantilizing of teens by a system of "emancipation." If a teen can pass an appropriate competency test then he or she ought to be emancipated to live life as an adult with adult rights and responsibilities.
Of course, there are a host of special interests that would oppose the emancipation of teenagers. Governments want to regulate young people; unions want to restrict the competition from young people; the mental health system wants to treat them; the schools want to warehouse them.
Then there are parents, you and I,that are afraid to let our children out into the cold, hard world.
The Big Idea of The Case Against Adolescence, the emancipation of teenagers, is what Al Gore would call "a risky scheme." Maybe teenagers can't be trusted. Maybe they really are irresponsible and unable to make good decisions. Maybe if we emancipated teenagers millions of Democratic voting educationists and mental health professionals and juvenile justice professionals would be out of a job.
But if conservatives won't stand up for the principle of responsibility, who will? When it comes to nannying and regulating and baby-sitting our liberal friends do a much better job than we do.
To drown out the background noise of liberal nannying and regulating we need a Big Idea.
That's what we had back in the 1970s in the conservative flood tide that brought Ronald Reagan to power in 1980. We preached the Big Idea of an adult America, self-reliant, self-confident, dedicated, and joyful in taking responsibility. Ronald Reagan said it best: America is a magnet "for all who must have freedom."
The conservative flood tide of that time took America from inflation and decline to a 30 year economic boom and victory in the Cold War.
In the next conservative flood tide we will be called once again to revive an America poisoned by the paralyzing venom of the liberal welfare state with its presumption of helplessness and its addictive drug of government programs and patronage.
Here is a Big Idea. In America we believe in responsibility for all.
Even for teenagers. Especially for teenagers.
Because the best way to stop Alec Baldwin's daughter from being scarred for life is to get her out from under her squabbling adolescent parents.